Belarus, Russia begin air force drills of ‘defensive nature’

Belarus, Russia begin air force drills of ‘defensive nature’

The increased military activity has raised concerns that Moscow could use its neighbor for a renewed ground offensive against Ukraine.

Belarus has said the joint air force drills it will start with Russia on Monday are defensive in nature, but the drills come amid growing concerns Moscow is pushing Minsk to join the war in Ukraine.

“The exercise is purely defensive in nature,” said Pavel Muraveyko, first deputy state secretary of the Belarusian Security Council, according to a post in the Belarusian Defense Ministry’s Telegram app on Sunday.

“It will be a set of measures to prepare our and Russian aviation for conducting the relevant combat missions.”

The exercises, which will last until February 1, include training in “air reconnaissance, air strike diversion, air cover of key objects and communications,” Muraveyko added.

The buildup of Russian troops in Belarus, coupled with a spate of military activity in the country, echoes developments just before Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, when Moscow used the country as a springboard for the attack.

The recent build-up has sparked fears in Kyiv and the West that Russia could use Belarus to launch a new ground offensive against Ukraine.

Ukraine has constantly warned of possible attacks from Belarus, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said last week the country must be ready at its border with Belarus.

The Kremlin has denied pressuring Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to take a more active role in the conflict in Ukraine. Minsk has announced that it will not go to war.

Since the war began, Belarus has conducted numerous military exercises, including large-scale comprehensive exercises in late August and a number of smaller ones alone or jointly with Russia.

Along with Moscow, Minsk has also provided weapons and military equipment for the exercises.

Telegram’s unofficial military surveillance channels have reported a number of fighter jets, helicopters and military transport planes entering the country since the beginning of the year – eight fighter jets and four cargo planes on Sunday alone.

The Portal news agency could not verify the reports. The Belarusian Defense Ministry said only that “units” of the Russian Air Force had arrived in Belarus.

“During the tactical flight exercise, all airfields and training areas of the Air Force and Air Defense Forces of the Belarusian Armed Forces will be involved,” the ministry said in a statement.

Muraveyko said the situation on the country’s southern border — the border with Ukraine — was “not very calm” and that Ukraine had “provoked” Belarus.

“We maintain restraint and patience and keep our gunpowder dry,” Muraveyko said. “We have the necessary forces and means to respond to any indication of aggression or terrorist threat on our territory.”

Last week, a Russian foreign ministry official, Aleksey Polishchuk, warned that while military exercises with Belarus were aimed at preventing an escalation, Moscow’s closest ally could join the war effort should Ukraine “invade.”